Chabad grows on campus

2014-01-31-16.34.58

Every Friday night at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, students sit down for a Shabbat meal. The weekly meal, held in Lindebaum Kosher Kitchen, is the quintessential Jewish get-together: friends overtalk, overdrink, and overeat, all while celebrating the seventh day of the week on which, according to Jewish beliefs, the world’s creation came to an end. The students at Slifka — a famously large portion of whom are not Jewish — eat a kosher meal including traditional Jewish cooking standards like challah, Kedem grape juice, and kugel. On the other side of campus, another group of students sits down for a similar, but also different, meal — served by Chabad at Yale, the on-campus representative of a Jewish outreach group and Orthodox Jewish movement.

Last October, the religious group moved to a new house located at 36 Lynwood Place, during an official ceremony to celebrate the organization’s growth over the past few years. During the ceremony, University President Peter Salovey commended Chabad for having built a strong presence at Yale and for reaching out to students “with an incredible tone of acceptance and warmth,” adding that the new building will provide a space for Chabad to become a center of Jewish study on campus.

Yet Chabad, whose name is an acronym for the Hebrew words Chochmah, Binah, Da’at — Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge — is far more than a Friday night dinner spot with free food and alcohol. As one of the most influential brands of Chasidic Judaism, Chabad continues to define and shape both religious and secular Jewish life today just as it did 200 years ago. As one of the fastest-growing Jewish organizations in the U.S, its quick emergence at Yale represents a parallel for how the sect has expanded and evolved worldwide.

BEGINNING IN THE TAFT

The road to create Chabad, Rabbi Shua Rosenstein’s vision of a “home away from home,” was anything but contrived. Rosenstein had finished a year of rabbinic internship in Belarus, and and had “several options” for completing his rabbinic study, one of which was doing so at the Rabbinical Institute of New Haven. After he settled in Connecticut in September 2002, he began holding Friday night dinners at apartment 3M of the Taft Apartments at 265 College St.

“The idea wasn’t necessarily to start a Chabad House, but educating for my own purposes and those of the students,” Rosenstein said. “If someone had told me then that what we were doing was going to balloon into Chabad at Yale, I wouldn’t have believed them.”

And yet, the Friday night dinners did eventually grow into something bigger, as excitement over the dinners and knowledge of them on campus snowballed.  “It became like a buzzword on campus on Fridays people would ask each other, ‘Are you going to 3M?’” Rosenstein said.

Jillian Merns ’05 was one of the many who heard about Chabad by word of mouth — she first began attending in the fall of her sophomore year.  Merns said Chabad — with its home-cooked meals and its traditional home setting — provided a “real sense of community” that is hard to find in college, adding that Rabbi Rosenstein’s “home away from home” was “extremely accepting and open and welcoming to everybody.”

Merns also said Rosenstein’s “personality and vision” have been critical to the success of Chabad at Yale.

“I don’t know how successful the leadership of Chabad at Yale would have been under someone else,” she said.

Eventually, however, the dinners became too large. Scott Ferguson, who works as Property Manager at Taft Apartments, said that this was largely a reflection of Chabad at Yale’s natural growth.

As a result of the increase in attendance at the Friday dinners, the apartment 3M was now too small to accommodate Chabad’s growing number of guests, Ferguson said. In 2005, Rosenstein moved Chabad to a new location at 37 Edgewood Avenue, where the religious group kept holding their dinners and services until last year.

However, the story of Chabad—not just Chabad at Yale — begins hundreds of years before Rosenstein & Co. began holding Shabbat dinners in the Taft.

EXCUSE ME, ARE YOU JEWISH?

The popular conception of the ultra-Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement is quite traditional — Jews in black coats, white shirts and skullcaps don’t exactly strike the modern observer as unprecedented. However, that’s exactly what Chabad was at its beginning in 1775: In fact, its founder, Schneur Zalman of Lyadi was a revolutionary whose ideas shook the foundations upon which 18th century Eastern European Chasidic Judaism was built.

Breaking with traditional Chasidism, Zalman espoused a more radical belief in the imminence of God and a more democratic way of educating believers. After the Second World War, in particular, Chabad-Lubavitch intensified its outreach efforts to “bring Jewish observance to the four corners of the Earth,” said David Berger, professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University.

The main feature of the movement’s evolution was the appearance of Chabad’s schluchim, or emissaries tasked with providing for the world’s Jewish communities. For Jews who observe Jewish customs and eat kosher food like Jessica Saldinger ’15, schluchim have a decidedly practical purpose.

“I was in Turkey over the summer doing research,” she said. “They really helped so much on how to keep kosher in Turkey and help me get into the synagogues to pray — I don’t know what I would have done without Chabad.”

Chabad makes the same outreach right on Yale’s campus in New Haven: Every Friday, groups of rabbinical students dressed in black coats and skullcaps wait on Elm Street, famously asking passersby, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”

All Yale students interviewed said they did not choose to participate, and the rabbinical students were not insistent once they were declined.

Eric Stern ’15 said that, although he identifies as Jewish, he usually declines to don tefillin — small leather boxes filled with Torah-scroll parchments, which religious Jews strap to their heads during weekday morning prayers. Stern said he connected with his Jewish background through traditions surrounding family and food, rather than those surrounding religious rituals.

Ike Swetlitz ’15 said the secular and religious sides of Judaism are not mutually exclusive. Swetlitz, who runs the Reform Jewish weekly prayer group at Slifka, said Chabad’s desire to engage the Yale community is genuine and that every sect of Judaism is entitled to its own methods of religious outreach.

“Is there a difference between a Chabad boy walking up to you and asking if you’re Jewish and a Slifka boy asking you if you want to go to ‘Bagel Brunch?’” Swetlitz said.

CHABAD VS SLIFKA?

Chabad at Yale has undeniably entered the mainstream of the campus’s religious landscape as well, attracting its own devoted Friday night attendees. Josh Isackson ’15, who frequently attends Shabbat dinners at both Slifka and Chabad at Yale, said Chabad has gained greater legitimacy on campus after the opening of the new house last fall. However, Isackson said the two major centers for Jewish life on campus — Slifka and Chabad — seem to attract different audiences: He said more graduate students and New Haven residents come to Chabad, while Slifka is more “undergraduate focused” and more accesible to non-Jewish students.

In the words of former Slifka Executive Director Jim Ponet ’68, “I think Slifka is associated with different movements. Chabad is associated with Chabad.”

Reba Watsky ’14, who also frequents both Chabad and Slifka, said she found Chabad’s emphasis on Jewish religious identity to be more “insular,” as it caters to a more specific audience of believers; yet, she added that as she became friends with more Jewish students, she “felt more a part of [Chabad].” While students from any background are welcome to attend Chabad events, Watsky said it’s important not to be oblivious to Chabad’s goals and principles.

“It’s welcoming because Shua will say ‘hi’ to everybody, he knows everybody, and you can always sign up and bring friends,” she said. “I have had non-Jewish friends visit. I just know that’s not who it’s intended for.”

Norman Bender ’67 — chairman of the Chabad at Yale board and to whose mother, Alice Bender MUS ’34, the new Chabad building is dedicated — said that he has frequently seen non-Jews at Chabad, especially during Shabbat dinners.

“Two of the first 10 people [I met at the building] — one was named Abdul, one was named Jamil,” Bender said. “I didn’t ask if they were Orthodox, but I had the sense they were probably not [Jewish].”

In addition to different audiences, Chabad at Yale and Slifka also have different philosophies regarding the role of women within their organizations, according to students interviewed.

In October 2013, Leah Cohen took Ponet’s post as executive director at the Slifka Center, the first female rabbi to do so at Yale.

“To me, it’s significant that a woman is both a Rabbi and a highly competent administrator,” said Ponet, adding that he found the plethora of roles available for women at Slifka to be a “significant” point. “Slifka Center represents a place where if you’re a woman and you wish to take a leadership, you can,” he said.

Cohen added that she remembers her non-Orthodox classmates at Hebrew Union College being evenly split between men and women, and that her gender had not prevented her from fulfilling her duties as a spiritual leader.

“I haven’t experienced any limitations as a rabbi by being a woman,” she said.

On the other side of campus, Chabad has a different take on women assuming the Rabbinate. Brit Sharon ’16, a board member of Chabad at Yale, said that she values the fact that Chabad would never ordain a woman as a rabbi, adding that, for her, “the concept of your rabbi is a man.”

While Chabad and other Orthodox Jewish sects do not ordain female rabbis, women have still found crucial leadership roles within Chabad at Yale. Ron Taitz ’15, Chabad at Yale board president, said that the national Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s position on ordaining women as rabbis does not influence how Chabad at Yale conducts itself as an organization: Taitz’s predecessor as president of the Chabad at Yale Board was a woman, and two current board members are also female undergraduates.

Taitz added that the the task of a rebbetzin — the rabbi’s wife — is also essential to any Chabad community. Here at Yale, Rosenstein’s wife Sara is in charge of running the Chabad at Yale House, Taitz said, adding that starting a Chabad without a woman is “against the rule.”

“The rabbi and his wife started Chabad — not the rabbi,” he said. “Women are actually held in higher esteem than men [in traditional Judaism].”

INTO THE FUTURE

The rapid growth of Chabad at Yale also stands in contrast to the Slifka Center’s financial caution in recent years.  Leah Sarna ’14, former President of the Young Israel House at Yale—the Modern Orthodox student organization—said the “restructuring” of the Slifka Center has made it notably more careful about how it distributes resources. Saldinger, Sarna’s successor, backed up this assertion, and cited the awarding of money for guest speakers to come to campus as an example. However, both Slifka co-President Jon Silverstone’15 and Executive Director Cohen rejected any concern that financial difficulties were currently compromising the Slifka Center’s ability to sustain its current programming.

Silverstone added that there has and always will be a great deal of “overlap” between Chabad and Slifka, and that it was more important that Yale had “multiple places that really care about the development of the Jewish community here.”

In particular, one area of overlap between the two centers remains the future of Jewish communities not only at Yale, but also worldwide. A November Pew Research Center poll on the state of the American Jewish community found the optimistic trend that 69 percent of Jewish Americans say they feel an affinity with the State of Israel.  However, the poll also found some trends understandably unsettling for  Yale’s Jewish leaders — a smaller percent of the U.S. population identifying as Jewish, fewer Jews having reservations about intermarriage and more Jews feeling indifferent towards raising their kids Jewish.

Rosenstein said he had not extensively read the poll, but that from what he had read, “it sends a message that makes Judaism sound regressed.”

“Assuming that it is correct, I think it only tells us that we need more: Chabad needs to grow ten times the size it is now, and so does every other Jewish organization at Yale,” he said. “We’ve really got to role up our sleeves and move if we want to create a future for Judaism.”

Clarification: Feb. 5

A previous version of this article referred to Jim Ponet as the  former executive director of Slifka. He is in fact also the Howard Holtzman Jewish Chaplain. 

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